The South Portland High School chorus sings “Lean on Me” in a virtual video performance on YouTube. Music teacher Michelle Snow said she was eager to learn how to use new technology and help her students expand their digital performance skills. Still from SPHS Virtual Choir YouTube video

When South Portland students began learning at home in March, Caroline Davis didn’t know when she’d see her classmates again.

“Everything turned upside down overnight,” Davis recalled. “It was a pretty dark time.”

Caroline Davis sings a solo in the South Portland chorus’s virtual video performance of the inspirational soul standard “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers, who died March 30. “We wanted to create a sense of unity even if we couldn’t be together,” Davis said. Still from SPHS Virtual Choir YouTube video

 

 

As the coronavirus shutdown continued, her concern deepened. Then Michelle Snow, a music teacher at South Portland High School, invited chorus members to participate in a virtual choir project.

The song would be “Lean on Me,” the inspirational soul standard by Bill Withers, who died March 30. Davis, a senior who plans to study musical theater at the University of Southern Maine in the fall, jumped at the opportunity and wound up with a solo in the virtual group video now posted on the YouTube website.

“We wanted to create a sense of unity even if we couldn’t be together,” Davis said. “It was special to do that song because Bill Withers had just passed and appropriate to what we’re all experiencing right now.”

South Portland High School’s virtual choir project is one of many online video performances being produced with student choral groups and music ensembles across Maine, the United States and beyond during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their youthful, hopeful voices, recorded in isolation and blended with digital technology, counterbalance the din of disturbing public health reports, gun-toting protesters and politicians dealing with an unprecedented global threat.

In place of cancelled spring concerts, similar videos have been produced by students and faculty at Cheverus and Casco Bay high schools in Portland, Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield and the University of Southern Maine in Portland and Gorham.

The Maine Music Educators Association has launched an effort to create virtual videos of All State ensembles after its annual festival and conference were canceled in April. And a group of music educators has organized the Maine Virtual Choir 2020 for students of all ages and their teachers, who’ve been asked to sing “Beneath the Pines,” a song by composer Andrew Hirst and poet Gwyndolyn Morneault, both Mainers.

Though somewhat controversial among music educators, these virtual productions are helping teachers engage students when singing or playing together is impossible. They’re also compelling students and teachers to learn new skills, especially related to using the latest recording and online publishing technologies.

And they’re connecting students with their wider communities, where people seem hungry for signs of hope and inspiration in a difficult time. Viewer comments posted on the video produced with Casco Bay High School students capture widespread sentiment.

“This is so awesome!!” wrote Antona Briley, a teacher at Lincoln Middle School in Portland. “To all the kiddos in this amazing video, thanks, it made my day.”

Eight Casco Bay students participated in a virtual music performance organized and produced by the national Expeditionary Learning Education group. The collaborative effort includes 34 students from 11 expeditionary schools in seven states.

The catchy original song, “Make the World Better,” was written and composed by Charlotte Bowder, a sophomore at Casco Bay who also sang and played keyboard for the video. Other Casco Bay students sang or played flute, guitar, saxophone, cello, drums and violin.

“They were all very nervous but incredibly proud of the results,” said Victoria Stubbs, music teacher at Portland Arts and Technology High School, where Casco Bay students attend music classes.

“They got to flex some professional musician muscles that they normally wouldn’t have been able to do in high school,” Stubbs said. “It was challenging to not be in the same room when they performed, but that’s COVID-19, right?”

Bowder, who is 16, is a prolific songwriter who has recorded and published 25 original tracks on the SoundCloud website, including two albums and several singles. She wrote the music used in the virtual video project last year, she said, for a song she didn’t like very much. It was just waiting for the right lyrics.

The video opens with a distant siren’s sound and Bowder sitting at the keyboard. Soon she is joined onscreen by Luthando Mngqibisa, another Casco Bay student, who shares lead vocals:

“I know you’re having a bad day; a bad week, a bad month, a bad year; You know I’m trying my best but; it’s hard to function without you all here; But, oooh, I’ll still be working with you, oooh, you’re why I do what I do, oooh, we’re holding on for September …”

Bowder said she appreciates the positive reception the song has received – it’s been viewed about 16,000 times already and the comments posted on the Vimeo website have been effusive. She’s especially glad that people have been uplifted and inspired by it.

“I wanted it to be a little bit about how I was feeling,” Bowder said, “but I also tried to write what would resonate with a lot of people.”

To make these virtual videos, students use various digital devices and software applications to record individual video or audio performances. Then teachers or others edit the recordings together and combine them with photo slide shows or videos using apps such as Final Cut Pro or online conferencing platforms such as Zoom. The latter feature headshots of participants that populate the screen much like the opening to the 1970s TV sitcom “The Brady Bunch.”

Make the World Better from EL Education on Vimeo.

Wrangling with new recording technology proved challenging for many of the teachers and students.

“There was a huge learning curve,” said Michelle Snow, a music teacher at South Portland High School. “But I wanted to do something relevant to music and have students do something together, if not in the same room.”

Snow said she was eager to learn how to use new technology and help her students expand their digital performance skills. She pursued the project knowing that some music educators have concerns about virtual choir projects.

Benjamin Potvin, president of the Maine Music Educators Association, said his group has hired a professional firm to produce virtual videos of the All State groups because it is a labor-intensive process that music teachers shouldn’t be expected to do in addition to instructing students.

Other critics point out the challenge of maintaining student equity on such advanced projects when everyone is working from home. Some students lack adequate web access or technology, or they don’t have the space or opportunity to perform at home, Snow said. Others may be too nervous or inexperienced to produce a video recording by themselves.

To address student equity concerns, Snow made the virtual assignment optional and allowed students to submit audio or video recordings of their performances. In the end, 70 of 105 chorus members participated in some way, with as many as 48 students appearing onscreen.

Snow’s husband, Tom Snow, also a music educator and professional musician, recorded the piano track that runs through the video. Toby Laber-Smith, president of the chamber singers group at South Portland High School, played bass guitar and supplied the vocal solo that concludes the song.

“I immediately saw it as an opportunity to connect with my fellow students and the community,” said Laber-Smith, a senior who plans to study music theater at the University of New Hampshire in the fall.

Laber-Smith said he’s happy with the way the virtual video turned out and was especially impressed with Snow’s editing ability, “putting it all together and making it sound that good.”

Snow downplays her role.

“It was great to have a common goal,” she said. “I was really happy to see and hear them again.”

At the University of Southern Maine, professor Nicolas Dosman produced a virtual slide show of the University Chorale performing Handel’s “Sing Unto God.” It features pianist Jeffrey Coggins and soloists Emily Lescatre and Miles Obrey.

Dosman enlisted the help of a student, Caitlyn McGonigle, to produce a virtual video of the USM Chamber Singers’ performing the gospel-style “Gloria,” by Andre Thomas, who taught in residency at the university last fall. It features pianist Kellie Moody and soloist Katie Oberholtzer.

“I’m still using my hands to conduct, but in a very different way,” Dosman said of digitally weaving together his students’ individual recordings.

“As artists, we have to be creative and find new ways to do things,” Dosman continued. “We managed to make lemonade out of lemons. The arts can and must continue during this crisis, because now more than ever, this is what people need.”

Cheverus High School has produced four video performances during the pandemic, organized and edited by Christopher Humphrey, music director at the Catholic prep school.

Two slide-show videos feature faculty and staff singing the African-American spiritual “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and the student choir singing Kacey Musgraves’ “Rainbow.”

Humphrey also created Zoom videos of the student choir singing the gospel-style hymn “I Sing Because I’m Happy” and the jazz band performing Santana’s “Evil Ways.”

Although many people may assume performers in virtual group videos were singing and recorded at the same time, Humphrey said it’s impossible to capture cohesive group audio on Zoom or other conferencing platforms because of wide variations in each person’s digital technology and web connections.

So, while virtual group videos provide an uplifting alternative during this pandemic, they won’t fully replace live spring concerts anytime soon.

“Even with the best equipment and technology and with skilled musicians, there’s still an internet lag that you can’t get around,” Humphrey said. “It definitely will be better when we’re all in the same room again.”

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